Starting new life at New Town

Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Courtney Ward and Jira Williams haven't given up on their plan of winning a state title together.


Courtney Ward and Jira Williams had big plans for their senior basketball season. Ward, a feisty 5-foot-3 guard, and Williams, a strong 5-foot-10 forward, wanted to help their team win a state basketball championship.

Tomorrow, the best friends will have their chance, as New Town heads into the Class 1A state semifinals at UMBC.

But this isn't quite what Ward and Williams had anticipated.

They weren't supposed to be playing at New Town. They were supposed to be playing at Eleanor McMain High School in New Orleans.

On Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina ruined those plans along with their homes.

Ward's Gentilly neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain and the 17th Street canal levee breach was flooded, as was Williams' uptown home. Both girls had evacuated ahead of the storm, taking only what they might need for a few nights' stay.

Ward's mother and stepfather remained in New Orleans during the hurricane, but sent her to stay with relatives in Gonzales, La., about 30 miles northwest of the city. Williams and her mother fled to Dallas.

Once Ward's family realized they could not return to live in their home, they decided to send her to Baltimore to live with the family of her cousin, New Town guard Tyra Breaux. Ward wanted Williams to come, too, and with some convincing, her mother agreed.

"It was our senior year, and Courtney and me wanted to play basketball on the same team," said Williams, whose mother, Joann Jackson, returned to New Orleans.

They began classes at New Town on Sept. 15.

It didn't take the 17-year-olds long to suit up for a basketball game. They finished the Amateur Athletic Union season with Breaux's Baltimore Charm team and played in the fall league with New Town.

Basketball made the transition to a strange new life much easier.

"It was like a crutch to lean on, an outlet," Ward said. "It felt good not to think about everything for however long a game is."

Neither Ward nor Williams has been back to New Orleans since the storm. All they know is what they've seen on television and heard from friends and family who have returned.

"I think she has a need to get back to New Orleans and see, because she's the only one who hasn't been back," said Ward's mother, Jeanne Bowers.

"It's real strong for her to go back, and I keep trying to explain to her, because she's going to be heartbroken," said Bowers, who spent six weeks living on a cruise ship while continuing to work as a medical technician at Children's Hospital. She and her husband, Carrey Bowers, now have an apartment not far from the Breaux home.

When the girls arrived in September, Ward's aunt, Gwen Breaux, took them shopping to replace what they had left behind, especially clothes. Her employer, Humphrey Co. in Columbia, donated funds to help the girls settle in.

The three girls - none of whom has a sister - bonded quickly, although Tyra Breaux, 16, still hears a lot about how different things are here than in New Orleans. Ward and Williams said everything is different - the way people talk and dress, the food, the music.

Still, the adjustment was smooth. They have maintained high grades - Williams has a 3.5 grade point average and Ward a 3.2 - and earned starting roles on the basketball team.

Ward and Williams, the only two seniors on the team, said they found it easy to fit into the Titans' style of play, having used a similar system at McMain.

Williams, a strong post player who can handle the ball, is the Titans' leading rebounder, averaging nine, while Ward, a standout defender, contributes five assists per game.

"They're real intelligent and they're basketball smart, too," New Town coach Pam Wright said. "They picked our system up and just fell right in. Our girls, I've got to commend them just as much; they accepted them and everything has just gone in stride."

Ward also has emerged as a leader on the court, helping junior point guard Breaux run the team. While Breaux dishes out nine assists per game, Ward also has an eye for her teammates and initiates a lot of offense with her stellar defensive play.

The biggest difference they've seen in the game is the level of competition. McMain's games were close, but the Titans (20-2) won a lot of lopsided games en route to their first Baltimore County championship.

Still, Ward and Williams have no complaints about the Titans.

"I'd rather be here than somewhere my other friends are," Ward said. "They're having problems with their teams. Everything's been good for us here."

Williams understands why a few of her former McMain teammates have met some resentment from players on their new teams.

"They're good and they're taking people's [starting] spots," she said. "People don't like that."

Titans junior center Lindsey Wallace said Ward and Williams have such easy-going personalities that they were easy to accept.

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